Senior outside hitter Bobby Vranek and the Nicolet boys volleyball team have been facing challenges for awhile now.
From a hard-charging schedule that included runner-up finishes in the Kettle Moraine and Wauwatosa East Invites and a title in the Shorewood Invite, to the injury to senior middle hitter Brian Ernster to a history that saw repeated losses in the WIAA sectional finals over the last few years.
So overpowering both Manitowoc and Arrowhead last week in WIAA sectional play to earn the Knights 'first state tournament berth since the WIAA reconstituted the sport in 2000 wasn't exactly the hardest thing to do but it may have been the most important thing.
"From the start of the season this has been goal number one," Vranek said. "The losses in sectional finals the last few years have been hard on all of us, but especially for coach (Brad Kuehl). He's always taught us to give it our best shot, always have heart if you want to get there (state).
"For us, it's been about pulling together, teamwork and playing the way we know we can. This year's been a lot different than the last couple."
And for that reason, the Knights will get a state quarterfinal match against Marquette at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 at Waukesha West. Tosa East lurks in the other part of the semifinal bracket of the tournament that will resume at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 with the championship slated for 3:30 p.m.
"We've been playing very well since the Homestead tournament," at the end of the regular season, Kuehl said. "This is what we've really wanted. It was a lot of fun at Arrowhead (sectional final Nov. 1). We had a large student section and they rushed the floor when we won. It's a big monkey off our back. Now we can focus on Marquette and go from there."
Strengthened by hard times
And the focus, like Vranek said, has been forged through some hard-earned team unity. He said it included the work of freshman libero Matt Klingspohn and that of sophomore setter Toli Berezovsky, who was a libero last season, but who has become so trusted in his key role that he's earned a co-captain's designation.
"It just shows how much teamwork and heart we have," Vranek said.
That heart was tested through the up-and-down season of Ernster, who is now back after missing much of the fall.
"He's my best friend and blood brother," Vranek said. "It was so tough for us when he got hurt, but it was about rising to the occasion."
Which included the 25-21, 22-25, 25-21, 25-18 win by the top-seeded Knights over the second-seeded host Warhawks.
Vranek said that Kuehl deserves much of the credit for the team's success.
"He practiced with us and told us that with the way Arrowhead was built, that we'd have to pass hard and serve hard," Vranek said. "He (Kuehl) really helped us out. He deserves a lot of props."
Vranek had 18 kills, while Berezovsky had 38 assists, Klingspohn six digs and Robbie Mayer four aces.
The Knights had advanced to the final with a 25-10, 25-12, 25-11 sectional semifinal win over Manitowoc on Oct. 30. Vranek had 11 kills Berezovsky 23 assists, Jimmy Sweeney six digs and Klingspohn six aces.
Steven L. Tietz can be reached at (262) 446-6619 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TEAM: Catholic Memorial (9-2)
STARS: Senior opposite hitter Chris Esser (312 kills), senior outside hitter Taylor Braun (287 kills), junior setter Tyler Cobb (770 assists)
FACTS: Co-champs of the Classic 8 Conference. …beat Nicolet in finals of Kettle Moraine Tourney. … fifth straight trip to state; were runners-up in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
TEAM: Racine Park (12-0)
STARS: Senior outside hitter John Baker (326 kills), senior Ben Pfeilstifter (166 kills, 406 assists), Deion Burks (509 assists)
FACTS: The all-senior Southeast Conference champion Panthers have been at or near top of state polls all fall. … won three tourneys. … making state tournament debut.
TEAM: Middleton (15-3)
STARS: Sophomore outside hitter Michael Owen (228 kills), senior Peter Wong (496 assists, 102 kills)
FACTS: Co-champs of the Big 8 Conference … making second consecutive and third overall state appearance.
TEAM: Kenosha Tremper (10-3)
STARS: Junior outside hitters Nick Mueller (193 kills) and Tomas Goldsmith (181 kills), senior setter Scott Marita (422 assists)
FACTS: Finished third in SEC. … making second consecutive trip to state and fourth overall.
TEAM: Marquette (10-1)
STARS: Junior outside hitter Alex Becherer (274 kills), senior outside hitter Ryan Lehmann (240 kills), senior setter Matt Hogan (816 assists)
FACTS: Co-champs of the Greater Metro Conference and won three tourneys this fall, including the Homestead Invite. … making sixth straight trip after winning titles in 2002, 2004 and 2005.
TEAM: Appleton North (11-2)
STARS: Senior middle blocker Parker Gross (202 kills), senior outside hitter Kyle Ullsperger (196 kills)
FACTS: Tri-champ of the Fox Valley Association. … making fourth state tournament appearance since 2002.
TEAM: Wauwatosa East (8-2)
STARS: Luke Coyle (218 kills), Relyea Speller (194 kills), junior setter Zach Liska (674 assists)
FACTS: Defending state champs finished third behind Marquette and Hale in GMC. … making third overall state appearance.
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